Leading Article: Sinn Fein must curb the IRA's threat of a return to violence

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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEK'S statement by the IRA that it will not decommission its weapons, with its reminder of how the last ceasefire came to an end, is a thinly-veiled threat to return to violence. IRA members have maimed and killed many innocent people in the past. This clear threat that they are prepared to do so again is depressing news for the people of Northern Ireland, who want peace.

The ceasefire has brought Northern Ireland prosperity, employment and, above all, a pause in the senseless violence. The failure of all parties to agree to the amendment to the Good Friday agreement and form a Northern Irish parliament last week was a setback to the peace process. But the vast majority of the points in the Good Friday agreement and, most importantly, a wide-ranging ceasefire, have remained in place. This leaves Northern Ireland just a few, albeit difficult, steps away from political stability and a lasting peace. The IRA's statement is a step in the wrong direction.

At a time when Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists should be striving to edge closer together, the IRA's assertion of an extreme position pushes the two camps further apart. The IRA's declaration that decommissioning is not an acceptable part of the peace process lends credibility to the Ulster Unionist fear that the republicans will never disarm. It makes it even harder for David Trimble to bring his Ulster Unionist Party to share power with Sinn Fein.

This threat of violence may have been intended to raise the stakes in the ongoing discussions. For Sinn Fein, the IRA's statement could make it appear that the political party has come a long way in securing a ceasefire. And it may portray any concessions which the party makes as a great achievement. But, for the people of Northern Ireland, whose hopes hang on peace, such a statement is just a grim reminder of the dark shadow of violence which hangs over them, and a worry as to whether it will ever be achieved.

What Northern Ireland needs now is reassurance that violence is not about to return to its streets. Sinn Fein must, without delay, make it clear that it is using its undoubted influence to do its utmost to guarantee the continuation of a broad IRA ceasefire and that it is still committed to securing a peaceful settlement. Now that Senator George Mitchell is returning to the negotiations, the republicans will have little excuse for not shifting their position towards peace.

And the Senator must be tough with them. In so doing he will hold the confidence of the Unionists who, too, must take another sharp breath and move in the direction of a lasting resolution. The people of Northern Ireland deserve no less.